It's as Easy as . . .

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A slice of apple pie is pure Americana. But how often does a homemade pie appear on your holiday table?

Call it fear of pie crust.

You know who you are. You don't have to think twice to make lemon tea bread for the PTA bake sale, a feathery layer cake for a Sunday dinner treat or a batch of chocolate-chip cookies for the home-from-school-and-starving set.

But bake an apple pie? Surely, you jest. The filling is a snap, but, oh, that pie dough. Somewhere between adding the right amount of cold water and rolling out a dough that doesn't crumble or stick, the average baker has an anxiety attack.

"I think that so often they overwork the dough or add too much water, and it turns into a rock-hard ball," says Leslie Noury, director of professional education at the Connecticut Culinary Institute in Farmington. "Or when they roll it out, it tears. As simple as it is, it is difficult."

But it's not impossible, says Noury, who has taught culinary students how to make pie dough by hand and in the food processor. The two most important tips to remember, she says, are to "keep everything as cold as possible, and work the dough as little as possible."

A basic pie dough is a mixture of the most simple ingredients: fat, flour, salt and water. When worked into the flour, the fat remains in small pieces that are coated with the flour.

As the dough bakes in the oven, the moisture in the fat creates steam. The pressure of that steam causes the bits of fat and flour to puff up, producing a flaky crust.

All-purpose flour is the universal choice for flour, but the choice of fat varies. (Noury says a good pie dough recipe should use a ratio of two parts flour to one part fat.)

Lard was once the only fat that any self-respecting baker would use for a flaky, tasty pie crust. But it has suffered from a bad reputation. Today's choice is vegetable shortening. Some bakers favor a combination of vegetable shortening for flakiness and butter for flavor.

Whatever the fat, it should be chilled until hard. Vegetable shortening is the easiest to work with, Noury says, and butter warms more easily and turns soft more quickly than shortening. To make butter easier to work with when fresh from the fridge, Noury suggests pounding it with a rolling pin.

She also recommends using your fingers to work the fat into the flour. A pastry blender or two knives also will do the trick. Whether you use your fingers or utensils, the idea is to work quickly and lightly until the fat is pea-sized and coated with flour.

The water also should be cold, not room temperature or lukewarm. Noury uses cold tap water. She sprinkles the water over the flour-fat mixture, then uses her fingertips to bring the mixture from the bottom of the bowl to the top, in a tossing motion.

The water called for in a pie dough recipe is a guideline. Noury uses two tests to determine if there is enough water in the dough. If you can "squeeze" the dough easily into a ball, the mixture is moist enough. If you can't form a ball or if there is still a fair amount of powdery flour at the bottom of the ball, sprinkle in a bit more water.

Noury then takes the ball of dough and smears it on the board with the heel of her hand for three or four turns.

The next step is to gather the dough into a ball, flatten it into a disc and chill it, wrapped in plastic, for at least 30 minutes; several hours would be even better.

"You want to cool the dough to slow down the gluten that keeps stretching when the dough is warm," Noury says. The dough will be less likely to spring back during rolling if it has been chilled.

Chilling hardens the dough into a firm mass. If you try to roll it, the dough will break apart, Noury says. Instead, lay the dough on a lightly floured board, then flatten it slightly by hitting the top of the disc with the rolling pin.

Noury lightly flours her work surface and rolling pin. She rolls the dough from the center outward, picking it up and dragging it across the surface of the board to pick up some flour and giving it a one-quarter turn. She continues rolling and turning, adding that if the "dough is cold, it won't pick up additional flour."

The dough should be rolled out to a large circle, about 1/8-inch thick and about 2 inches larger than the pie plate. To easily transfer the dough from the board to the pie plate, lay the rolling pin on half of the dough and drape the other half over it. Transfer the dough to the dish and gently fit the dough into the plate.

Noury suggests cutting slits or cut-outs in the top crust while it is still on the floured board. The openings will be cleaner than if they are cut when the crust is already draped over the filling.

It's a good idea to refrigerate the pie dough before adding the filling. Chill the bottom crust, already in the plate, and the rolled-out top crust. Chilling will help to set the crust and prevent shrinkage during baking.

A soggy bottom crust is often a common complaint among pie bakers. Noury says that often a bottom crust turns soggy when the oven isn't hot enough. To turn out a crisper, flakier crust, she offered these tips:

* Preheat the oven to the baking temperature suggested in the pie recipe you are using. Put a cookie sheet on the oven rack during preheating. Put the pie directly on the cookie sheet for baking. The heat from the cookie sheet will give a quick start to the baking process.

* Consider pre-baking the crust. Line the pie dough with aluminum foil and pie weights or rice to prevent bubbles during pre-baking. Bake at 400 degrees for 12 minutes; the crust will turn an opaque white. Remove the weights and foil, brush crust with a beaten egg and return to the oven for 2 minutes.

PATE BRISEE

1 1/2 cups flour, sifted

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/3 cup ice water

This recipe from the Connecticut Culinary Institute in Farmington, Conn., makes a tender, flaky, rich pie dough; it is made in the food processor.

Process flour, salt and butter in food processor just until butter is cut into smaller pieces, about 5 seconds.

Add ice water and process 5 seconds, just until dough comes together. Remove dough from bowl, flatten into disk, wrap in plastic and chill for at least 20 minutes.

When chilled, roll out on lightly floured board to about 1/8-inch thickness. Transfer to pie plate, gently fit dough into plate and chill again.

Makes 1 (9-inch) pie crust, enough for 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 8 servings, crust only, contains about:

231 calories; 250 mg sodium; 47 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

APPLE PIE

CRUST

2 cups sifted flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, cold

1/4 cup vegetable shortening, chilled until firm

5 to 6 tablespoons ice water

FILLING

8 cups sliced apples (about 5 to 7 tart apples, peeled and cored)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons flour

Dash salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Cortland, IdaRed and McIntosh are often the apples of choice for a good apple pie. But if you want a great apple pie, use a variety of apples. You might choose two Cortlands, a McIntosh, a Golden Delicious and a Granny Smith. Winesap, Baldwin or Gala, one of the newer varieties, also are interesting apples to add to the mix.

CRUST

Combine flour and salt in mixing bowl. Cut butter and shortening into small pieces and add to flour. With pastry blender, cut fat into flour until mixture is crumbly. (Fat will be about pea-sized and coated with flour.)

Sprinkle 5 tablespoons water over flour mixture. Toss mixture with fork until flour is moistened. Mixture won't look like dough but will hold together if you press small amount with your fingers. If dough will not hold together, add remaining water.

Gather mixture into ball, handling dough gently and quickly. Wrap ball in plastic, then press to form flat round disk. Refrigerate dough until hard, at least 20 to 30 minutes. (Can be refrigerated overnight.)

When ready to roll out dough, remove from the refrigerator and divide disc into 2 pieces. Hit top of discs with rolling pin few times to soften. Lightly flour work surface and rolling pin. Roll out dough, starting from center and working to outer edges of dough. Try to work toward round shape, rolling first in 1 direction, then in another. Give dough 1/4 turn to keep from sticking. Stop rolling when dough is about 11 or 12 inches in diameter.

Drape half of dough over rolling pin, then transfer to pie pan. With your fingers, gently ease dough into pan, pressing lightly into bottom and slides of pie pan. Roll out the second disc for top crust.

Chill bottom and top crusts in refrigerator, about 30 minutes, while you prepare filling.

FILLING

Put sliced apples in mixing bowl and sprinkle with lemon juice. Toss apples to distribute lemon juice. In small bowl, combine sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add to apples and toss until apple slices are coated with mixture. Cover and set aside.

To assemble pie, turn apples and any juice that might be in bowl into prepared pie pan. Mound apples slightly in middle. Center chilled top crust over filling. Make sure you have cut slits or hole in center of crust to vent steam.

Trim any ragged edges of dough. Tuck edge of top crust under edge of bottom crust and crimp edges as desired. (Simplest crimp is to press around edges of crust with tines of fork.)

Put jellyroll pan or piece of foil on floor of oven to catch any juices that might bubble over from pie. Bake pie in center of 425-degree oven until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling, about 40 minutes. (Check pie after 25 to 30 minutes; if crust is browning too much, cover edges or top of pie with foil.)

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

388 calories; 368 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.52 gram fiber.

CHOCOLATE SILK PECAN PIE

PECAN FILLING

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup dark corn syrup

3 tablespoons butter, melted

1/8 teaspoon salt, if desired

2 eggs

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 (9-inch) pie crust

CHOCOLATE FILLING

1 cup hot milk

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups semisweet chocolate chips

TOPPING

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate curls or shavings, optional

A chocolate dessert is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. This one, a 1986 Pillsbury Bake-Off winner, hides another filling favorite--pecans--under a layer of chocolate.

PECAN FILLING

In small bowl, combine sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt and eggs; beat 1 minute at medium speed. Stir in pecans. Pour into crust-lined pie plate. Bake at 350 degrees until center of pie is puffed and golden brown, 40 to 55 minutes. Cool 1 hour.

CHOCOLATE FILLING

In blender or food processor, blend milk, vanilla and chocolate chips until smooth, about 1 minute. Refrigerate until mixture is slightly thickened but not set, about 1 1/2 hours. Gently stir, then pour over cooled Pecan Filling in crust. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.

TOPPING

Beat together cream, sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Spoon or pipe cream over filling. Garnish with chocolate curls or shavings, if desired. Refrigerate until serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

575 calories; 245 mg sodium; 116 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°